Tuesday, March 03, 2009


For Lent I'm going through this old book called Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers, written by Msr Paul Lejeune. You could probably tell just by the title and the beginning words that it's an old book (yes, the imprimatur is from 1913).

"My daughters, you all aspire to perfection. But what is your idea of perfection?"

It occurred to me while I was reading it that I can hardly think of a priest nowadays who would begin a book by saying that we "all aspire to perfection." I think nowadays the word "perfection" brings a mental image that is either unreachable (like a supermodel) or rather distasteful (like Little Miss Perfect). I notice that nowadays, perhaps with some excuse, priests will emphasize the "humanness" of even the saints rather than their excellent qualities. The excuse is that pastors are talking to the people of this day, and in this day there is a trend towards focusing on the "dark side" in biographies and fiction, even to the point of stretching slender evidence to the separating point in order to find some shady element in, say, Jane Austen's life.

There is an emphasis on "being real" nowadays that would have seemed strange to former days, I think. It makes sense in a way, working against the unappealing "Little Miss Perfect" type of image, but at its worst it can lead to a sort of avid pursuit of folly and a kind of settling for mediocrity. This is probably why I cringe a bit when an authority figure, like a priest, tells some story about his own little follies in a homily. Sure, I understand the motive -- he doesn't want to come off falsely as some superbeing, he wants to share that he is human too. But I look at my pre-teen boys and worry. What do they have to aspire to, if a priest seems quite amused by his own imperfections and relays them almost as if he was asking for entrance into the cool club of messed-up people?

In some ways a desire for perfection is built into human nature. Who wakes up in the morning and thinks, "I want to end my life as an inadequate mess?" But here are some of the more indirect manifestations I've seen of a desire for perfection:

  1. We could already be quite disappointed and cynical because we have an ideal that seems completely out of line with our reality. I know people like that; I was just reading about essentially disappointed people in The Great Gatsby.
  2. We could be thinking that the "ideal" was another person that we know about, perhaps some super homeschooling mom or distinguished person, so by definition NOT ourselves.
  3. We could feel fairly content with where we are now and not really want to think about aspirations and perfecting. We look around us and think we look pretty OK in comparison to most people we know.

I think nowadays many people are essentially disappointed. They have disappointed themselves and they've been disappointed by people around them. And they have grown up in a society which has promised them that this shouldn't really be. They feel they are owed something more than they have and that fulfillment is relatively easy to find. So in order to find some level of content in this situation of cognitive dissonance they look for stories about messed-up people so they can feel not so bad in comparison. So you see the biographies of flawed people, or flaws attributed to excellent people, or the reality shows and talk shows on television where dysfunction is almost celebrated (though there is usually some token consequence for the dysfunction).

A corollary seems to be some version of #2, grabbing onto some exterior trait of someone who appeals to us -- their beauty, or their wealth, or their artistic talent or level of organization -- and then fall into a sort of wistful "following". Emulation is good, but often it's an attachment to some exterior trait and so doesn't really help the follower to become his or her own unique being.

Socrates mentions in Phaedo that there is a temptation when we've glorified someone or something, when we are disappointed, to become disillusioned with everything or everyone. I see this happening sometimes, too. We see some Super Mom and idolize her and regret bitterly our own inadequacies. Then when she turns out to have some imperfection, it is very disappointing or else, in a weird way, satisfying. In either case, it's a distraction from our own responsibility.

I was recently reading bits of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics -- he goes through the various things that are conventionally thought of as means to happiness. Beauty of appearance, health, intelligence and competence, wealth; love, friendship, respect or honor from those around you.

These things are indeed goods, it is undeniable, but they are vulnerable to chance and to change. You can lose them all in a moment and you are bound to lose them over time. For sure, you can't take them with you, and they will not necessarily help you in your last moments. So while they are goods of a sort, they can't be the essence of what makes a human being approach perfection. Anything that is vulnerable to exterior fortune can't be that.

He says that virtue is the only thing that is essentially part of the human being. The etymology of "virtue" comes from "vir" meaning man and implies things like courage, loyalty and magnaminity (largeness of spirit).. "Arete", the Greek word used by Aristotle, meant something like "excellence" or the goodness proper to the thing (in this case, the human being). So "virtue" isn't the Little Miss Perfect ideal to Aristotle, but almost the reverse. It doesn't shrink someone down to a pattern model, but elevates their natural qualities.

The Greeks realized vividly that this ideal of virtue was difficult to actually realize. Stories of virtue, and philosophical discussion about virtue and its role in society, gave them models to participate in, in a way, and strive for, and an underpinning of reason rather than sentimentality in their approach to human excellence. But these models weren't models of one individual and the stories and philosophy didn't promise lasting worldly success as a reward for virtue.... it wasn't a mercantile system or a straight "input/output".

I am sometimes concerned that when pastors and teachers and parents and the like try to meet the lowest common denominator, that they actually set a lower expectation. I know I've been talking about that a lot lately. I am thinking more and more that it is essentially human to actually do better than one would expect IF the desire is there. We seem to have an ability to grow into something higher than ourselves.

Humans seem to be the only creatures that aren't satisfied with being as they are -- that CAN'T be satisfied with being what they are at a given moment, or they will actually slide towards being less than they are. Chesterton says that we say to a man who is acting like a beast, "Be a man" but we don't say to a crocodile pursuing his prey, "Be a crocodile" because that's exactly what it is already doing.

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